When Personalities CollideErwin W. Lutzer | June 10, 2007
Selected highlights from this sermon
Personalities often clash, even within the church. How should we approach human relationships?
In Romans 12, the apostle Paul illuminates three qualities which dictate our interactions with others. The power of blessing, the power of humility, and the power of faith form the foundation for gracious living with others. Even when there is friction, we must seek to lovingly connect with others and bless them in the midst of our harsh world. Entrusting ourselves to Him who judges justly, we are to live by faith in the midst of wrongs and injustice. Forsaking vengeance, let us forgive as Christ forgives!
If you are a Christian, have you ever wondered what God is doing in your life? I can tell you today what He is doing. He is trying to reproduce in you some of the characteristics of Jesus. We can’t have them all, but we can have some of them like love, forgiveness, patience, and faith. God is reproducing all of that in our lives, and He does it in two different ways. He does it first through circumstances like sickness and a whole host of other things that are beyond our ability to control.
Secondly, He does it through people. Sometimes it involves difficult people. I am talking about the person who plays the stereo too loud in your condo next door so that your walls shake, too. I’m talking about the coworker who lied and betrayed you at work. I’m talking about the colleague who always needs to have things come out his way or her way and they are totally insensitive to your needs and concerns. We are talking about the relatives who chiseled you out of your inheritance. We are talking about the people who do you in and the people who don’t like you and always try to get one up on you. It may even be your husband or your wife who has turned out to be your enemy.
Has anybody ever met somebody like that? Maybe the person sitting in your chair is someone just like that. Why don’t people just shape up and change? The answer is that most of those people I’ve just described think that they are perfectly fine. The relatives that do you in think to themselves that they are being much more gracious to you than you deserve. That is why change is so difficult. Believe me, ladies, the only time you can change a man is when he is a baby. Keep that in mind!
Today we are going to be talking about difficult people and what I have to say is very difficult. It is going to be so countercultural, so counterintuitive, so against our nature that some of you are going to say, “I can’t even touch this because it is beyond what I am able to do.” That is why we need the fullness of the Spirit. We need the Holy Spirit to help us obey God’s Word today in a radical way. After we’ve obeyed God’s Word, God is going to prove His Word to be right, and I want you to write me a letter later telling me how God changed your life as a result of this message.
Would you join me one more time in prayer? Only God can help us do what God requires us to do. “Father, we ask in Jesus name that you would make these transforming moments. We ask that as we think about what your word tells us to do that you would enable us to do it. Resolve tension and bring people into deliverance and may they not be overcome by evil but may they overcome evil with good. We need your help, in Jesus’ name, amen.”
The passage of Scripture is the twelfth chapter of the book of Romans and I am beginning today in verse 9. Paul is talking to the people of Rome in the book of Romans. Today we are going to walk through the Scriptures and I am simply going to expound them to you and let the Word do the work. That is what we want to let God do through His Word.
He begins in verse 9 and says, “Let love be genuine.” Love is the great hallmark of the Christian because if you can’t love, you must not be saved. Love is what takes us from being self-absorbed to being other people absorbed. It transfers our focus from ourselves to others and gives us the willingness to sacrifice for them. The actual Greek text says, “Let love be without hypocrisy.” I like that better than even the word “sincere,” though of course that is the meaning.
We have all met people who aren’t really good, yet it is very important for them to appear good. What Paul is saying here is to be sure it is the kind of love that isn’t simply the token kind, so that you can ease your conscience but inwardly you don’t love at all. Let love be without hypocrisy. I spoke last time about those who think there are too many hypocrites in the church. If you ever find someone who says there are too many hypocrites in the church say, “Come and join us! There is always room for one more!” That would be one way to handle it.
Paul goes on to say, “Abhor what is evil.” That is a sermon in itself and I must hurry over it. I will say that by nature we don’t abhor what is evil. Television has desensitized us so that we don’t hate what is evil at all. In fact, we may accept what is evil. How can you abhor that which is evil when your nature loves it? You can’t wake up in the morning and say, “Today I am going to begin to abhor what is evil.”
Rather, this is something that God births in our hearts by giving us a passion for Jesus that is greater than our passion to sin. You will never overcome sin unless you love Jesus more than you do your sin. It was Alexander Pope who said, “Vice is a monster of so frightful mean, as to be hated needs but to be seen, yet seen too oft familiar with face, first we endure, then we pity, then we embrace.” Only God can do a work in our hearts to abhor what is evil. So we should abhor evil and then Paul says to “cling to what is good.”
All of that was by way of introduction. Today we are talking about difficult people. We are talking about human relationships that are going nowhere. We are talking about living with people who always want to take advantage of us or people who when you tell them something take what you have said and twist it a half turn. How do we handle them? Are you ready for what God has to say about those kinds of people or what God may be saying about you? Let’s begin!
There are three qualities that we need to have which Jesus had that will give us the grace to be able to deal with these people. First, there is the power of blessing. You’ll notice that Paul is broadening it in verse 14. He says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”
This is the power of blessing those who are regarded as our enemies or other difficult people. To bless means that I affirm them. I may not affirm everything that they have done but I affirm them as individuals. To bless means that I connect with them. To bless means that I am willing to give of myself and I am willing to accept them.
We begin the idea of blessing within our own families. Someone here in Chicago who owns a place where women dance for men said that the women “are dancing for the fathers they never had.” Mike Singletary asks all those in prison, “How many of you had a good relationship with your father?” He says that he has not yet seen a single hand raised. You see, if you grew up with a dad who always judged you, a dad who you could never please, what you will discover is that you may become a workaholic just to prove who you are because you’ve been missing your father’s blessing. Within our families we should bless one another.
We also bless our friends. Those who know me well will attest to the fact that about 90% of the time I say to people, “God bless you.” I say it in stores and to people at the checkout counter. In almost all human interactions I say to people, “God bless you.” Most of the time they say, “God bless you, too,” or they say, “Thanks!” We live in a world that needs blessing.
Let me tell you a story. This past week I flew to Chattanooga and I caught a cab to the airport. I spent 12 to 15 minutes at the most with the cab driver. I had never seen him before. We talked about Iraq and he told me that he was in the Vietnam War. He said that in war you just have to blow people away and you can’t have any pity. He said, “I went into this village because I was a gunner and they shot at me and I said, ‘You shoot at me and I will shoot at you.’ I mowed the whole village down. Everyone in the village was killed,” and he described it to me.
Then he surprised me by saying, “Do you know what the worst part of it all was?” I said, “What?” He said, “I loved doing it. They wanted to kill me so I wanted to kill them.” I asked how many he killed and I won’t tell you the number because it was a very, very high number according to his estimate. By now we are almost at O’Hare airport and so I said to him, “Did this affect your relationship with your family when you got back?” He said, “Oh yeah. I was mean. I didn’t want anyone to talk with me. I never beat them but I would wake up in the night hearing shells in my dreams falling close to me and detonating. It really affected me.”
By now we are at O’Hare and before I got out of the car I said to him, “Has anyone ever prayed for you?” He said, “No, nobody has ever prayed for me.” I said, “You know what? This is your day.” I was sitting in the back, he’s sitting in the front and I put my hand on his shoulder and I prayed for him like obviously he had never been prayed for before. I asked God to bless him. I asked God to show him that He cared about him, that God was available to him to help him. I prayed everything I could and when I was finished he thanked me twice. Folks, we live in a broken world. We live in a world that is so tragic and so broken. Why don’t we become agents of blessing?
Paul said that you should obviously bless your families and your friends but also your enemies. Notice he says to “bless and do not curse.” How do you bless the person that you are having such a hard time getting along with? What you do is you say to them, “I have been praying for you and I would like to know how I can pray for you better that God would bless you? Is there any request that you can share with me so that I can pray God’s blessing upon your life?” That is the way in which you handle difficult people. You pray that God will bless them.
You also do good things for them. That is exactly what Jesus said in a passage that we discussed not too long ago. He said, “Do good to those who persecute you; bless those who curse you.” You begin to do good things to those who are regarded as your enemies. That is the way in which you live because that is the way Jesus lived and that is the character of God. The Bible says that He sends His rain upon the just and the unjust and gives blessing to all. That is the way in which we become children who are like our heavenly Father. Like Jesus who on the cross said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” we bless and we do not curse.
By the way, there is something that I sometimes say to waitresses and I wish I had the nerve to do it more often. After they say, “Is there anything else I can do for you?” I say, “In a moment we are going to pray. Is there anything we can pray for you about or a way we can include you in our prayers?” I remember one woman who broke out in tears. Our world is so harsh; let us be people who bless and do not curse.
I think of my friend who works in Europe with Muslim people. He received a letter from a Muslim who said, “Cursed be you, cursed be your wife and cursed be your family. Cursed be your car and cursed be your home.” He wrote back and said, “Blessed be you, blessed be your wife and blessed be your home and everything that pertains to you.” Jesus said, “Bless and do not curse.” It is the power of blessing.
Secondly, there is the power of humility. That is what I have called verses 15 and 16. You’ll notice it says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited.” The word humility does not occur there but that is the whole idea in those two verses.
First of all, it means that we connect with people. Pride is something that we see very clearly in the lives of others but we do not see pride in our own life. It is very difficult to detect; it is always beneath the radar. In fact, I have a great sermon on humility. I am just waiting to preach it until I have a big enough crowd. Yesterday I took time to walk along Wells Street because the Art Fair was there and I saw a guy with a t-shirt which said, “I’m very wonderful.” I want to ask you a question: who do you think bought that t-shirt? I venture to say he bought it all by himself.
We also rejoice with those who rejoice, which is very difficult. To weep with those who weep, that is easy. Even the unsaved can weep with those who weep. But can we rejoice with those who rejoice? There is always that person who has been a bit uppity in relationship to you and brags a bit. We have all met people like this. They are like a cowboy I once knew in Texas–he was all hat and no cows. Suddenly they get a windfall and they call you on the phone and say, “My uncle just died and I inherited two million dollars. Let’s go to McDonald’s and celebrate.” You go with them to McDonald’s and they expect you to pay for your own burger.
Can you rejoice with them? That is difficult to do. The Bible says to rejoice with those who rejoice. I have always prayed that God would enable me to rejoice with those who are more successful than I am. Jonathan Edwards says that when we get to heaven we are going to be so free of envy that when we see those above us in the kingdom we will rejoice as if their exaltation were our own. Humility means we rejoice with those who rejoice and we weep with those who weep and we are not conceited.
We also associate with those who are lowly. Slavery was still a problem in the early church. One of the things that the church insisted on was that the slaves sit with the owners on the same bench because they knew to make a distinction was unscriptural. That is why James says that if someone comes into your assembly and he has all kinds of gold chains and is living large, you don’t put him in a special category. Rather, he sits with everyone else. Humility means impartiality.
How does humility help us to get along with one another? Humility makes us realize that we do not have to insist upon our rights. We give up our right even to happiness. We give up our right to be somebody. We give up our right to be noticed and to be recognized. We give all of those rights over to God and we no longer have them and that enables us to have a different relationship with people. We are no longer obsessed with fairness.
Fairness is what makes us so angry. We feel this isn’t fair and that isn’t fair, and on and on it goes. When we are finally broken before God and humbled we realize that grace isn’t fair. The fact that God loved us so much and forgave all our sins is not fair. Therefore, because grace is unfair we are willing to live with unfairness. We are not obsessed with the need to make sure that we get our piece of the pie because we are content with who we are and our relationship with God. We fight for fairness on the part of others but we ourselves are not obsessed with being treated fairly. That is the way we get along with one another and God helps us in the process.
We also think of Jesus. The Bible says that God humbled Himself and yet man remains proud. What is God trying to do? He is trying to help us get over the idea that we have rights that we need to hang onto.
I told you years ago about a woman who came to see me with buckets full of papers. She was trying to prove that one of the hospitals in the area was guilty of malpractice and that is why her mother died. I asked her, “How many years ago did this happen?” She said, “Seven. I have been to all of these attorneys but I thought maybe you as a pastor could help.” Lady, maybe the hospital is as guilty as you think it is, but give it up! Life is passing you by; move on! And as we shall see in a moment we don’t have to reconcile all of these things in this life, so hang on until the end.
First, we have the power of blessing; secondly, the power of humility; and third, the power of faith. The word faith doesn’t occur in verse seventeen and following but you will see in a moment why I have labeled it faith. You need faith to be able to do what the Bible teaches. It says, “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance in mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”
Why faith? Faith means that I don’t have to get vengeance. Faith means I don’t have to even the score. I don’t have to say, “You did me this evil and so I will show you a thing or two and do this evil back.” Faith means that I can entrust God to even the score and I don’t need to settle these disputes because vengeance belongs to God.
In order to limit vengeance in the Old Testament it says, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” By the way, that was not a personal thing that you were supposed to do, it was part of civic law. When you have someone who deliberately pokes out your eye what do you want to do? You are absolutely insistent that you poke out both of his eyes and do a lot more. There is something within us that desires vengeance. Vengeance belongs to God and not to you. You commit it to the Lord and you walk away free.
There are two examples from the Scripture. As you know, Joseph was a man of God who understood the providence of God. He knew that the evil his brothers had done against him would be used for good. After his dad dies, which is in the fiftieth chapter of Genesis, the Bible says that his brothers were afraid that Joseph would take vengeance on them. They were worried now that their dad was dead that he would even the score.
So they come to him and say, “Before he died our father said that you shouldn’t repay us for the evil that we have done.” The Bible says that when Joseph heard it he wept. Why? He wept because he thought, “You mean that at this point my brothers still think that I am the kind of person that is going to mete out vengeance and even the score?” He was terribly hurt.
And then he said these words: “Am I in the place of God?” What Joseph is saying is, “If I were to even the score and take out vengeance I would be doing God’s work. I would be saying, ‘God, you are not doing anything so move over! You are too slow! Years go by and You are not doing anything about this situation so I am taking it into my hands and I am finally setting the record straight.’” Joseph said, “I will not do that because I would be doing what belongs to God.” The text says, “Vengeance is mine.” You do not repay evil for evil. You leave it to God and trust Him, which is where you need faith.
I have had women come to me and say, “You expect me to get rid of my bitterness toward my husband? He divorced me, he leaves me with the kids, and I’ve got two jobs to keep things together. He is down in Florida somewhere, he has a good job and won’t make child support payments and now you expect me to be the one to release all that bitterness to God?”
Where is justice? Isn’t that what we want? Of course we want it, and Gad has built the desire for justice within our hearts. Our hearts cry out, “Where is justice?” For years I didn’t know how to answer that until I had the insight from I Peter chapter two, verse twenty-three, which you have heard me quote many times regarding Jesus who, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten.” He didn’t say, “Wait until I am in charge because I am going to blow you guys away! I am going to even the score!”
What did he do? Did he give up his desire for justice? No! He kept entrusting himself to Him who judges righteously. Jesus said, “I can endure this injustice because I know there is a time when my case will be tried by the “Supreme” Court and I can trust my Father in the end to do right by me.” My friend, you do not have to even the score. You desire for justice is well-founded, but what you need to do is give yourself fully and totally to God and to trust Him, which is where faith comes in, that He will do what you are not supposed to do. Let God be God.
Let me nail this down now in our relationships as we think about the power of blessing, the power of humility, and the power of faith. First, keep in mind that God has a reason for your conflict. God wants to reproduce in us the qualities that Jesus had so he has to put us through some of the same experiences as Jesus.
A man once asked a sculptor, “How do you make an elephant?” The sculptor said, “It is not hard at all. All you do is you take a block of marble and then you chip away everything that isn’t elephant.” What is God doing? He is chipping away everything that isn’t Jesus and He is molding us into his image. Difficult people do that best in our lives. If I had more time I could give you illustrations of this point.
Secondly, our treatment of others is based on God’s treatment of us. What does the Bible say in Ephesians chapter 4? It says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Has God forgiven you much? Is there anyone here today who says, “Yes, God has forgiven me much?” My hand is raised, what about yours? He has forgiven us so many times for the same sins over and over. We knew better and we despised Him by doing our own thing.
If He has forgiven you and forgiven you and forgiven you then why are you so stingy when it comes to forgiving others who have hurt you? The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ gave Himself up for us. If you are here today and you have never received His love and His grace, understand that He died for sinners so that if we stop trusting ourselves and trust only in Jesus then we can be forgiven and experience grace. And because we can experience grace we can now dish it out liberally. Love covers a multitude of sins.
The final resolution of conflict is God’s business. The Bible says, “As much as lies within you, live peaceably with all.” Can you live peaceably with everybody? No, because there are all kinds of people who you cannot live with peaceably. There are people who refuse to make peace. There are people who make false accusations. There are people who if you tried to make peace would use it against you to gain control.
There are all kinds of people you cannot have peace with, but as much as lies within you so far as your side of the ledger is concerned, do what you possibly can to live peaceably. Then what do you do? You trust God and believe that in the final judgment God is going to make it right and the truth will come out and you are willing to trust Him for the final resolution.
Here is a story of two people who both claim to be Christians. The man leaves his wife and divorces her and goes with another woman. There is bitterness, no reconciliation, and no justice in terms of payments and so forth. It is an ugly situation. Then they both die. Do you think that when they get to heaven God is going to say the blood of Christ has forgiven everyone’s sins? You are a Christian, she is a Christian, and now is the time to walk into heaven happily holding hands. We will just pretend bygones are bygones. Not at all! That is what the judgment seat of Christ is for–to resolve unresolved issues.
At the judgment seat everything is going to be drawn out. Justice is going to be brought to that situation before they are allowed to permanently enter into heaven. That is why the justice of God is going to be manifest at the judgment seat of Jesus Christ. The Bible says that based on the deeds done in the body, whether they be good or evil, we shall all receive justice. In the case of Christians, that is what will happen and then we will go into heaven permanently and eternally.
What about the unsaved? They are going to have to bear their own sin for all of eternity. If you are here today and you have never trusted Christ as Savior and you’ve never believed on Him, just understand that you are not under the protection of Jesus Christ from God’s wrath and from God’s justice. God is an avenger for those who do not know Him personally. Every sin and every transgression is going to be a part of the final evaluation and at the Great White Throne of Judgment you will stand there bearing your own sin and your own iniquity.
That is why it is so important for you today to flee to Jesus. When you receive Him as Savior you receive God’s vengeance, which has been received by Jesus, and you are exempt. That is the good news of the gospel and that is a good place for this text to end. Romans chapter 12 ends by saying in verse 21, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Did you know that if you are a vengeful person you have been overcome by evil? Evil has conquered you.
Today I encourage you to give up your vengeance. If you have never received Christ as Savior, you can receive His forgiveness and then you begin to forgive all of the hurts, all of the anxieties, and all of the concerns that you have today. If you are a believer, and how can I put this more strongly, having bitterness and anger in our hearts does more to hinder the work of the Holy Spirit than anything else. I conclude today by saying to you give it up, lay it down, and be free in Jesus.
Let’s pray. “Our Father, we want to thank You for the fact that you have rebuked us today. You have reminded us that the people that are brought into our lives who are difficult are brought there for the purpose of making us more like Jesus. We have rebelled, we have been angry, we have lashed out, we have been filled with rage, and we are obsessed with fairness and justice. You say to us, ‘Let me take charge of all of that.’ We ask today Lord that you shall grant us the grace to do that in your love and mercy. And for those who are here who have never trusted Christ as Savior, we pray that they might do that today.”
Before I close this prayer now, what is it that you need to say to God? Talk to Him now because He is listening. “Father, whatever you have begun to do, make us follow through with it, we pray. A brief prayer is not sufficient but it can be the beginning point when we say, ‘Lord, get rid of the bitterness and the vengeful spirit.’ We want to walk in the freedom of Jesus. Grant that, we ask in Your holy name, amen.”